Amy Walter: It's Politics with Amy Walter on The Takeaway.
Donald Trump: I call the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are. They are the enemy of the people.
Amy: For the last four-plus years, Donald Trump has dominated political news coverage, whether in 140-character Twitter bombs, unwieldy press conferences, or campaign events staged at the White House, his ability to be the center of the story and change the narrative, both to his benefit and his detriment, has been unprecedented. Part of this has been a furious and sometimes dangerous war with the "media".
Donald Trump: Read his laptop. You know who's a criminal? You're a criminal for not reporting it. You're just a lightweight, don't talk to me that-- Don't talk. I'm the President of the United States. Don't ever talk to the president. It's all a hoax. It's a scam. You know who helps him? These people right back here, the media.
Amy: Donald Trump's term is winding down, and soon, there'll be another man in the White House. Joe Biden, of course, is no stranger to this world. He's been in politics for decades and has experience with the White House press corps, and we know that the Obama administration made many questionable and debatable choices in how they handled media and individual journalists.
With so much of the 2020 campaign done virtually, Biden was able to avoid much of the traditional back and forth with the press assigned to cover him, and lots of folks criticize the campaign and the media for not pushing harder to get Biden in front of reporters, but we were able to see flashes of his frustration with questions and topics he didn't want to answer.
Reporter 1: Do you think it was wrong for him to take that position-
Joe Biden: No.
Reporter 1: - knowing that it was really because the company wanted access to you?
Joe Biden: Well, that's not true. You're saying things you do not know what you're talking about. No one said that. Who said that?
Reporter 2: Why attack Sanders?
Joe Biden: Why? Why? Why? You're getting nervous, man. Calm down. It's okay.
Amy: A core part of Biden's campaign promise was a return to normalcy and inherent in that is a more traditional communications team and relationship with the press. What does that mean for newsrooms? This week we assembled a group of people in the news media who are thinking about just that.
Rick Klein: My name is Rick Klein. I'm the political director at ABC News.
Caitlin Conant: I'm Caitlin Conant, and I'm the political director at CBS News.
Ben Smith: I'm Ben Smith. I'm the media columnist for the New York Times.
Amy: Rick and Caitlin were on the show back in August to talk about how their networks for preparing to cover what we knew would be an election like no other. I started out asking them to reflect on how things went.
Caitlin: At CBS News, and I think most of the networks did this, we invested time and resources into covering really what was going on at the state level in terms of getting to source up for secretaries of state, know what was happening, what the rules would be, and to prepare and lay the groundwork for the scenario that we did find ourselves in, which is that it was going come down to Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, where we weren't able to call it on election night.
Because of the way that they processed and counted votes, you saw what many described as a red mirage, which appeared that Trump was leading that night, because in-person votes, a lot of those voters were Republican. The mail-in votes, which were from urban, more populated areas, which tended to be Democrat, it took states longer to count those.
Between our campaign reporters, Major Garrett, we had covered that a lot, and I'm curious to hear what Rick says next, but I do think there were a lot of people who hadn't been following the ins and outs of this like we had, who are living and breathing this every day. I think it turned out that many of them went to bed on Tuesday night thinking one thing, and a few days later, there was a different result. I can't really fault them for that. What we have to do is continue to explain why that happened and to have information out there and have a responsibility to educate.
Amy: Rick, what about you?
Rick: It surprises me that it played out almost exactly like we thought it would. Election night, itself, in terms of the red mirage and the blue shift that happened. We said it would happen. We said it a lot on our air. I don't think anything can fully prepare an audience for actually seeing it. We actually made some changes even in the guts of our graphics to try to make sure that we weren't casting forward a result that was inaccurate, and we spent a lot of time on election night, hours, explaining why what you're seeing, in terms of the vote coming in, isn't necessarily reflective of the final outcome.
Then, we spent days afterward explaining in detail, that I have never seen before on television broadcasts, the intricacies of what our decision desk was thinking and what the results were and weren't, and what the legal processes were. Ultimately, we were talking about provisional ballots that were cast in a certain way in certain counties in Pennsylvania at a level of detail that, again, if you're watching-- Maybe it goes over people's heads. I think people were really interested in it. We spent time on our-- On election night, we had someone working demographic boards, we had someone with exit polls, we had Nate Silver on the FiveThirtyEight team.
With their analysis, we were again bringing in these different facets of it and explaining to people over the course of several days because it wasn't until Saturday that our network and Caitlin's networking and other major news organizations projected the presidency for Joe Biden. I'm very gratified to know that we've told every turn of that story, and frankly, that we haven't overreacted to things that the losing candidate has said and done. We saw this week that extraordinary 46-minute Facebook posting, highly-edited from the White House speech. The President of the United States gives, what he says is, the most important speech of his career, and he does it for 46 minutes from the White House.
We covered it as if it was another volume. We didn't overreact. If you watched David Muir's show that night, you had some light touches around it, but it was basically him giving voice to things that have been disproven at court or that he tweets all the time. It really wasn't that newsy. I feel like, from our perspective, we've found something of a balance. It's never perfect. It's always difficult in the hour by hour, and I'm hopeful that can continue going forward through this process and then through whatever comes next.
Joe Biden will be president of January 20th. We expect that if President Trump wants to continue his political career and announced for 2024, he's not going to go away. He's still going to be making a lot of noise. I got a text from my mom just today actually saying, "Have you guys thought about how you're going to handle him when he's an ex-president and he does these things? Because you guys should really think about that." "Okay, mom. We're thinking about those things."
Amy: Ben, I want you to weigh in on-- Maybe you can help Rick answer his mom's question about, "Have they thought through this?" One of your columns, you ended by saying, "The question now is whether the electorate and we in the media can break our addiction to the Trump news cycle." What do you think?
Ben: I wrote a pretty panicky column in August about how we were totally going to screw up the election. Actually, I think people, as he said and as Caitlin said, did a pretty good job of being very, very, very explicit and focused on the mechanics of voting, did as good a job as you can do, and still, huge chunks of the country don't care and weren't listening. That's the caveat here.
I do actually think, maybe to a degree that I didn't even expect, that Trump's getting a little boring. I think it's a lot of this, what is news, is a gut sense of, what's interesting to you and to your audience. His power is, every day, seeping away, and it's not as interesting when a former politician tweets crazy stuff as when somebody with enormous power tweets crazy stuff
He's still the President of the United States. He has enormous power, but I think the constant challenge in the White House was, on one hand, he's saying these crazy things that are unlikely to happen and that are out of touch with reality and even with his own administration, and yet, he's President of the United States. You've got to wrestle with that. I think when he's not President of the United States, it's going to be easier to dismiss it. It actually just isn't as interesting and important.
The important story is going to be his, I would say, fight for control of the Republican Party, except that he seems to totally control the Republican Party. There is a political story that in the old days of newspapers would live on page A20 about the ongoing Donald Trump consolidation of power in the Republican Party, and who's going to be the RNC chair, and which jobs do his kids get, but it's not that big a story.
Amy: Ben, I'm going to stick with you for a minute because this was also part of your column, and then, I want Rick and Caitlin to weigh in on this too, about coverage. Now, what's it going to be like to cover Joe Biden?
First, I would love to get Ben your assessment of the media coverage of Biden. I mean, we didn't see a lot of him in 2020, and we know that there were a lot of folks, including many Democrats who thought that was a good thing that he was able to-- Thanks in part to COVID, thanks in part to the fact that Trump took all the political oxygen, he was able to hang out in the background, let the race be a referendum on Trump. We didn't hear him give gaggles. We didn't see him at rope lines. Do you think that that was a mistake that the press didn't push enough to see Biden enough to get him on record, to get briefings?
Ben: Yes, it's our job to push. I think that, definitely, there were times when-- I mean, again, people work, but also, there was a press corps camped out trying to get questions answered, and Biden was ignoring them. There's a limit to what you can do there. Also, Trump was, in fact, incredibly open with the press. He gave long rambling press conferences and answered questions that got shouted at him and reacted constantly on Twitter, and often spoke to his favorite, Fox News people, but also his administration just leaked like a sieve, which is great and accustomed us to a level of transparency that I'm sure Biden is going to try to walk back.
It's also just true that Trump is this extraordinary phenomenon and story and was a bigger story. Biden was a conventional Democrat running with basically conventional democratic policies, and it is important to figure out where he stands on police reform, but it's within a fairly narrow-- It's within the old politics being played between the 40-yard lines.
Rick: I was going to answer that. I think the degree to which our brains have been rewired by Trump and the Trump era can't be overestimated. There was a headline in Ben's newspaper this week that reported accurately, so far, as we know, that Joe Biden was not planning to fire the FBI director, and I thought, "How is that a story?" Well, it is a story because Donald Trump did fire the FBI director, but you're not supposed to fire the FBI director. They get tenured terms. Obama kept the FBI director that he inherited from Bush and gave them an extra two years, in fact.
The fact that we now report it as news, that he won't do something that is viewed widely as outrageous and coloring outside the lines, tells you how much we're reacting and thinking about things differently because of Donald Trump, and that isn't to say that Joe Biden give us as much access as we wanted. Ben's right, we were there every day. It was a pandemic as well, so it was difficult. It was easier for him to hide away from us because of the nature of what we're dealing with, but to judge Joe Biden by all of the norms that Donald Trump broke, I don't think is fair to Joe Biden or fair to democracy.
I think where we have to recalibrate, and I think where our challenge really lies is remembering, coming back to where we came at as journalists, as people cover politics, and believe in the process of political journalism, that there are norms that are important to establish. Just because something that Joe Biden does won't be as outrageous on scale of 1 to 10, it won't even register on the Trump outrage scale, doesn't mean that we shouldn't be covering it, doesn't mean that we shouldn't be asking questions about it, it doesn't mean we shouldn't be pointing things out to our viewers and our readers.
That to me is the most difficult thing that we're going to wrestle with is that we've had four years, five years plus of Trump on the national stage that has just changed our very wiring or the way we think about how presidents and a White House produces news. Now, we're going to go back to something that is going to be far more traditional, but we've got to remember what things were like before Trump.
Amy: That's a great question. Caitlin, I do want you to weigh in on that, especially as you pointed out, you have these embeds, both of the networks have embeds, maybe this was their first campaign. You have reporters who now covering Washington, who 2016 might've been their first campaign. This is normal to them.
Caitlin: Yes, I think just from a totally processed standpoint-- Putting my old communications hat on for a minute, I think we had a president who was his own chief strategist, his own media advisor, and communications director, and that is going to change. We're already seeing it with traditional roll-outs from President-elect Biden. They are giving certain outlets scoops. They're floating trial balloons to put people's names out there for cabinet positions to test the waters on how they're received. Whereas for the past four years, we've all been living on Twitter to see if the president's going to fire someone or what he's going to say that day, and he was making his own news.
I think just from a news gathering and consumption standpoint, things are going to be very different for us and for the public. Just as candidates, some lawmakers need to have, know who they are, have a message, know their audience, I think we need to know who our audience is because we're going to have to say, "Okay, if we want to break news and be in a spot to roll something out, what can we provide that the other others can't, and what do we want to invest in?" Because I think a lot of the issues-- What I expect is news organizations are probably going to beef up their Hill teams and policy teams because a lot of news is going to be breaking at an agency level and what negotiations are happening between the White House and the Senate.
So far, I think the transition team seems pretty disciplined and as a traditional communications operation to the extent that there's squeaky wheels who are leaking news is probably going to be coming from elsewhere. I think those are all new things when we've been dealing with really the principal being the deliverer of all news and making his own decisions every step of the way. I think that's just going to be something that was normal before, and we're going to see, get accustomed to again.
Amy: Yes, that's a really good point, this idea that you no longer have to have 16 people on rotation at the White House, and instead, redeploy those people. Is that what you're already starting to do, is to say, "We don't need this level of-- We're not going to need this level of coverage at the White House"?
Caitlin: We're just starting, at least at CBS, thinking about what happens to all campaign reporters beyond, having discussions about what to do with them next. I think policy and agencies and the Hill, given what they've done, putting them on some of those beats that we haven't had covered would make a lot of sense.
Amy: Ben, do you think that interest now in politics, it goes back to being boring once again, and it's just dorks like us who love covering politics that stay in it, but that this idea that politics can dominate our lives in the way it has for the last four years, regular people being engaged in it, is that era over now?
Ben: Well, there are things. One is, I do think that people have been- feel that politics in the United States can go really off the rails, can really change, the realm of possibility and imagination is much wider than they thought, and it can either be really inspiring if you support Trump or really scary if you don't. I don't think that feeling's going to go away. I think the idea that politics is like this sport that you can watch for fun but doesn't really have an impact on your life is something that people no longer feel, and when you try to talk about politics that way, I think a lot of our audience are disgusted by it actually, this horse race stuff.
On the other hand, I think day-to-day, yes, I think people are going to not be interested in the negotiations on Capitol Hill and the outrage that there were only six votes in committee and that's this incredible violation, and then, actually, we got to switch sides. We're in favor of there being six votes in committee and all this stuff that's so complicated and process-driven that it's hard to understand for regular people.
Also, Hollywood hasn't released any new movie. Well, there's a couple of movies. Maybe people saw Tenet, but that's about it, in theaters for a year. There's this huge stockpile of entertainment that is just sitting there in the studios waiting for theaters to reopen for theatrical reopenings. Production on entertainment TV stopped for months in the spring. It is back up and running. There's going to be a lot better content coming out next year than politics, and people are going to have a lot to tune into.
Amy: Or is it going to be all politics related content? Are there going to be 46 different Trump biopics, or are people going to be over it?
Ben: Anybody who want to watch that? I think we all-- I think Trump's sort of defied fiction. I think that there's going to be a ton of great entertainment coming out next year, and people are going to tune out. I mean, all I want to do is read travel stories for summer 2021.
Rick: Amy, to add on that, Joe Biden built his campaign on that calculation, essentially, that people didn't want to have to worry about the president tweeting in the middle of the night. Obama said it at a bunch of rallies, wouldn't it be nice if he didn't have to think about your president every day? It seems like such a basic thing, but he has become so much of the news diet for everybody that-- Biden probably benefited, at least on the margins, from the perception that, like him or not, I won't have to worry about him starting a Twitter war with somebody randomly and just that slower pace.
It may frustrate us in the news business because we'd love every White House to leak like a sieve. We'd love to-- The palace intrigue stories, they're catnip. They're terrific stories. There's so much great reporting that's happened around the White House these last couple of years, just incredible stuff, stuff you never ever get out of any White House that's come out, and I anticipate there's not going to be anything like it again for a while.
The Biden world isn't going to be like that. We're going to be back to a much more manageable, be frustrated by it at times, and no doubt that White House reporters will be calling for more access and sound off about things that are walled off. The Biden team's calculation is, wants to go back to the way things were, and people liked it that way, and if they're not thinking about politics every waking minute, that that's a good thing.
Amy: Guys, I could keep this conversation going for a long time, but we don't have forever. I appreciate it so much. Rick Klein, Caitlin Conant, Ben Smith, thank you guys so much.
Rick: Great to be with you.
Caitlin: Thanks, Amy.
Amy: After dominating news coverage for the last four years, it's sometimes hard to remember what life was like before Donald Trump entered the White House. The constant chaos and drama was both a frustration and a boon for the media industrial complex. Lots of political reporters, traditionally they are behind the scenes types, are now household names thanks to their ubiquitous presence on cable TV. Subscriptions to many big national newspapers skyrocketed. The voracious appetite for all things Trump launched websites and podcasts and YouTube channels.
With Trump gone, what will fill this vacuum? Let's hope that news organizations use all this talent they've amassed to really dig into and explain the critical challenges that face this country. We're still in the middle of a pandemic. The latest jobs report show a slowing in the economic recovery. Americans are hopeful about the prospect of a vaccine in the near future, but access to it is going to be a major concern and issue. On January 20th, a new person enter the White House and this provides a new opportunity for news organizations to break their addiction to personality in palace intrigue and to focus instead on how Washington is or isn't working and the very real problems that are sitting right in front of us.
We're just about a month away from the start of the new Congress on January 3rd, and over the last few weeks, I've had the opportunity to talk with a number of the incoming freshmen. It's a busy time for them as they step up, network with their colleagues, do interviews, and of course, attend new member orientation, much of it remotely. It's also a great time to get an unvarnished view from them of their expectations before they begin their new jobs. This week, I caught up with-
Ritchie Torres: Ritchie Torres. I'm the congressman-elect for New York 15, the South Bronx, and I'm entering Congress after serving in the city council for seven years.
Amy: I started out by asking him to tell me a bit about his district and the people who live there.
Ritchie: New York 15 is the South Bronx, which is said to be the poorest congressional district in America. It's arguably ground zero for racially concentrated poverty. Even before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, when unemployment was at historic lows in New York City, around 4%, the unemployment rate in the South Bronx could be as high as 15.6%, and that's before you factor in structural unemployment. More than half the residents in the South Bronx pay more than half their income toward their rent, and that's before you factor in the bare necessities of life like food, transportation, utilities, and prescription drugs.
Even though it's known to be the poorest congressional district in America, I would argue that COVID-19 has shown the South Bronx to be the essential congressional district. It's the home of essential workers who put their lives on the line so that most of us could safely shelter in place during the peak of the pandemic. Many in your audience will know that New York City, at one point, was the epicenter of the pandemic, and The Bronx, in particular, the South Bronx was the epicenter of the epicenter.
Amy: Right. You grew up in this district.
Ritchie: My father is from Mott Haven. My mother is actually farther East, in Throggs Neck. I grew up in a public housing development in the East Bronx, right across the street from what eventually became Trump Golf Course.
Amy: Can you talk about that and its influence on you and your decision to be involved in public service? You're a pretty young person. You're in your early thirties. This isn't your first public office. You'd been in the New York City Council, so if you could talk about those times that you had growing up and how it brought you to this point.
Ritchie: It all began in The Bronx. I spent most of my life in poverty. I was raised by a single mother, who had to raise three children on minimum wage, which in the 1990s was $4.25 an hour. I grew up in public housing, living in conditions of mold and mildew, leaks and led, without consistent heat and hot water in the winter. I think my life is something of a metaphor because I grew up right across the street from Ferry Point Park, which is home to Trump Golf Course.
As I saw the conditions of my own home get worse every day, the government had invested more than $100 million dollars in a golf course, ultimately named after Donald Trump, and I remember wondering to myself at the time, "What does it say about our society that we're willing to invest more money in a golf course than in the homes of low-income Black and brown Americans?" That experience of inequality in the shadow of Trump Golf Course is what inspired me, first, to become a housing organizer, and then, eventually, I took the leap of faith and I ran for public office.
Amy: Talk about your decision to be as open as you are, not just your struggle with opioid addiction, as you pointed out, trying to reconcile your sexual identity, but sharing that. When you decide to go public office, obviously, you become a public figure, but there's part of yourself you don't have to share and you chose to do that, why?
Ritchie: I suspect that I've been shaped by the experience of coming out. I feel like the process of coming out as an LGBTQ person, the integrity it demands from you teaches you an ethic of radical authenticity. It teaches you how to be honest and open about who you are, and that's an ethic that I've applied to every aspect of my life, both political and personal. I feel like as a public figure, I want to inspire hope. I want to represent the hope that those struggling with depression, with mental illness can overcome the odds and have a fighting chance at a decent life.
I feel like I have an obligation to do my part in breaking the stigma and the shame that too often surrounds mental illness. I have no shame in admitting that I struggle with depression, that I take an antidepressant every day, and that I'm living proof that mental health care can enable you to lead a productive life, both as a person and as a professional. For me, healthcare is a human right, and that's especially true of mental health care.
Amy: You'll be a freshman member. Democrats still have the majority, a slimmer one than was expected, but a majority. The Democratic Party will be in a position of power, but it's not clear yet what's going on in the Senate. Talk about some of your expectations going forward, especially if Democrats don't have complete control of Washington, and what things you think the Biden administration should be pushing for no matter what.
Ritchie: My expectations depend on control of the Senate. If the Democrats win control of the Senate, then I would make a strong case that we need to build democratic power as a precondition for bold progressive policymaking. I would advocate immediately legislating statehood for both DC and Puerto Rico, which would likely yield four new democratic US senators and would counterbalance the structural bias that both the Electoral College and the US Senate has against the Democratic Party. That, to me, is a precondition for bold progressive governance in an age of divided government.
I would argue that we should focus on just bread and butter issues. One issue about which I'm passionate is the Child Tax Credit. The structure of the Child Tax Credit is so regressive at the moment that it excludes a third of American families, the poorest families. The regressivity of the Child Tax Credit is most egregious in the South Bronx, where two-thirds of families are excluded from the full benefit. If we were to extend the Child Tax Credit to the poorest families in America, we would cut child poverty by 40%.
Amy: This seems like one of those issues though that whether Democrats are in charge of all of Washington, in other words, whether they have a majority in the Senate or not, this seems like something that could get bipartisan support. Does it not?
Ritchie: Potentially. One can never underestimate the obstructionism of the Republican Party and the Mitch McConnell, but there could conceivably be a bipartisan consensus for the Child Tax Credit because it's a tool for strengthening American families.
Amy: What do you think of the picks that the president-elect has put forward, thus far, in general, but also since we're on the issue of the economy, specifically on his picks for treasury secretary and other economic advisors?
Ritchie: I am supportive of President-elect Biden's administration picks. There's clearly a recognition on their part that the priority has to be to stimulate the economy. In a time of depression level unemployment, the main priority has to be to put people back to work and to put pocket money in the pockets of working families and working people and to ensure that our state and local governments have economic relief.
I'm from New York, and we've never had a moment in the history of our state where the state government and the local government, and the public transit system were all caught in ever-deepening fiscal prices. Without an infusion of federal funding, America's largest city, New York City, is in danger of becoming a shadow of its former self. I have full confidence that the future Biden administration recognizes the need to support our families, our small businesses, and our state and local governments, as well as our public transit systems.
Amy: Did you want to see some members of that team who come from more progressive background, come from outside of traditional Washington or establishment backgrounds?
Ritchie: I want a team that is both progressive and effective, and the team President-elect Biden has put together largely passes the test. This is a team that recognizes the need to sustain and strengthen the social safety net. I'm largely pleased with the team. Look, there's a mass mobilization in America in favor of a progressive agenda. There's no doubt in my mind that the Biden ministration is going to be responsive to that a little bit.
Amy: As you probably know, there's a narrative that's been developing, especially post-election, that there is something of a rift or a battle for the soul of the party, of the Democratic Party, between the moderates and the more progressive members, and it burst into view post-election with some moderate members criticizing liberal ones for pushing an agenda that they say lost them seats in the election. What do you make of all of this? How real is it?
Ritchie: There's certainly a divide within the party. I would argue that the central divide in the Democratic Party is not between moderates and progressives, it's more between, what I call, purist and pluralist. There are purists who are intent on ideologically purifying the party or challenging incumbents who are thought to be too ideologically impure to effectuate the kind of structural change the country needs. Then, there are pluralists who recognize that the Democratic Party has no choice but to be a Big Ten in order to remain competitive in purple districts and make majorities. I think purists tend to be movement progressives, but not all progressives are purists. There are plenty of progressives in Congress who operate within the system.
Amy: Do you put yourself in that category?
Ritchie: I do. I would identify myself as a progressive and pluralist.
Amy: Have you been meeting with both-- I don't want to call it both sides, but you've been meeting with progressives, moderate, other members of the Democratic Caucus within your class? You're a pretty small freshman class, but have you met folks beyond that and had conversations on your own with them?
Ritchie: We have. It's challenging in a world of COVID, but I've had conversations within my freshman class and across the ideological spectrum largely within the Democratic Party. Washington is about relationships. You're only as strong as the relationships you have, and you have to build a broad cross-section of relationships in order to be effective in Washington DC. It's been a priority of mine to build relationships with both moderates and progressives, pluralist, and purist, Democrats of every ilk.
Amy: Well, Congressman-elect, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me, please stay safe, and we'll see you here in Washington soon enough.
Ritchie: It was a pleasure. Take care.
Amy: Ritchie Torres is the congressman-elect for New York's 15th congressional district. To hear an extended version of this conversation or to listen to any of my conversations with the incoming freshmen members of Congress, head on over to politicswithmywalter.org/freshmen.
Georgia has been a focal point in the political world since the state turned blue in November for the first time in almost 30 years. On January 5th, Georgia will hold two runoff elections that will determine which party controls the US Senate. Democrats need to win both of them to take the majority. Republican senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, are running against democrats Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock.
Gradual demographic change, especially in the metro areas around Savannah and Atlanta, have pushed this one-time Republican stronghold into swing-state territory. At the same time, grassroots organizations, many of them led by Black women, have spent years organizing and registering voters, especially Black voters. Among them is Deborah Scott, the executive director of Georgia STAND-UP, an organization working to register and turn out voters and voters of color.
Deborah Scott: Because Georgia STAND-UP has been around for the last 16 years, we have a strong base of community allies and support throughout the state, but we're primarily in the metro area, which is 13 to 30 counties. That's where 60% of the population in Georgia really live.
Amy: I talked to Deborah Scott about what STAND-UP Georgia is doing for the runoff elections and the challenges of getting to show up for an election taking place just a couple of days after we bring in the new year.
Deborah: In this election, which is, of course, we know one of the most important elections of our lifetime, we can say we know as a group of nonprofits, organizations that are working together, we have built this base over time, 10, 15 years of constantly doing voter registration and voter education and advocacy that the state would eventually become progressive.
We have the metro area that was progressive, but the rest of the state was falling behind. We saw that we could be of service to the community by enhancing our voter registration capacity, enhancing the capacity to do canvassing in the community. We did 1.9 million calls last cycle. We have a phone bank and a text bank, and we have canvassers and we're doing special events. What we're trying to do in this particular election is pretend that November never happened, and this is the first election of the year.
Amy: Well, that's my question to you-- Maybe it's a two-part. One, how much of this is still registering folks who, maybe even after all the work that you all have done, did not register in time for the 2020 November election? How much of this is making sure people, who did turn out and who voted and who registered in time for the November election, come out again right after New Years' to vote in two special elections?
Deborah: Well, first of all, there are 23,000 young people that were not old enough to vote in November, that are now eligible for this upcoming election. One of the things that we're doing is reaching out to the school systems to give them a civics education as part of their curriculum this week because we want them to get them registered to vote. We've sent them QR codes and Bitly codes so that they can send it directly to their students that are studying at home so that they can get registered to vote.
If they're 17 and a half in Georgia and they're going to be 18, by the time of the election, they can actually vote. The deadline for voter registration is actually Monday, December 7th. Right now, we're in that last push to get folks that need to get registered to vote, maybe they didn't know about it, or maybe they didn't get their information in on time, but then, also people that are frequent voters. We often have people in our family that you just assume were registered to vote.
We're going back to our voters and saying, "Okay, Mrs. Jackson, thank you so much for voting. Look what you did. This is a historic election. Can you give me a list of the five people in your family that aren't registered to vote?" We don't even ask her, "Are there five people?" We're asking her, "We know there are five people in your family that need to vote," and they'll, "Oh, yes, my cousin needs to." We get them engaged in this process, and we challenge her to go back to her family and say, "This is important, and we need to register to vote."
We focus a lot on Black women because that's the base of our operation here because many of the community campaigns we work on are, quite frankly, led by women. Black and brown women are really doing their thing here a Georgia. Forget about this last November election. That is done. This is a new election, and you have an opportunity, not just to make history because that doesn't appeal to somebody when you're talking to them at their door, you want to talk to them about their pain points, "What's going on in their neighborhood is the street light working? Is there a pothole in the middle of your street? Are your neighborhoods organizing? Did you know this development project is coming?"
We're talking to them about what is their family's point of pain, and how the electoral process can actually help to solve that. We move into, "Well, okay, so the unemployment rate is high," and then, that might lead into a conversation, "Yes, I have two people in my family that are not working." "Okay. Were you were you able to get unemployment?" "The line was so long, and we couldn't-- We didn't get it." What we try to do is to get them connected to some of the issues and the problems that they have are really policy issues.
Amy: I know you all are a nonpartisan organization. You're just encouraging people to go and vote, and yet, we also know that the president and many Republicans in the state are suggesting that this election in Georgia was fraudulent, that the secretary of state, and the voting machines more rigged. Is that impacting, do you think, people's trust in this process and their desire to actually go out and cast a ballot?
Deborah: Our communities, that we work with, are mostly Black and brown. Particularly, in Georgia, they are used to voter suppression tactics. Part of what we try to teach them is, "Don't worry about the noise of the politics of all of this. You still have a responsibility." I think that they are voter fatigued based on the ads that they see, they're so negative, and the news that is happening every day that people are like, "I don't want to hear it anymore."
When you have that one on one conversation with them, whether you're having at the phone or on the door, when you make it personal and you talk about the historic factor in this and not only did they make it hard, not just this year but 40 years ago, 20 years ago, this is just a part of a continuum, but we still have an obligation and a responsibility to say that in spite of these obstacles, you still have to do it. We put Voter Protection in place. We have attorneys at polling locations. We have organizations that are ready to assist if there's a problem at the polls. We're just acting as if that doesn't exist, but setting up the apparatus that if they run into problems, that we have a remedy for them.
Amy: Deborah Scott is executive director of Georgia STAND-UP. If you are a Georgia voter, December 7th is the voter registration deadline. Early voting begins on December 14th, and the runoff elections will take place on January 5th.
We're going to stick with Georgia for a minute. In assessing how this once Republican stronghold has become a swing state, most of the attention has been on the influence of the state's Black voters and white suburban voters. That makes sense given their sizable share of the population. However, the fastest-growing group of voters in the state are Asian American and Pacific Islanders, AAPI for short. While they make up a significantly smaller share of the vote, their influence has been felt at the congressional and statewide level.
According to an early analysis of the November elections by a democratic firm, voter participation by Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Georgia was up 91% from 2016. I spoke with Amy B Wang, a national politics reporter for The Washington Post, who has been covering the role AAPI voters played in 2020 and could play in the special elections in January.
Amy B Wang: Asian American Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing demographic in Georgia, but the percentage of eligible voters in the state is only about 4% or I think 240,000 or so, which on paper doesn't seem like a lot maybe, especially when you look at the number of Black voters and Latino voters. They historically had some of the lowest turnout, and this year, I think one democratic firm said that they had like a 91% increase in turning out. That's more than enough to swing a close race. Exit polls are showing that they had preferred Biden to Trump by like a two to one margin. When you got a presidential race that's decided by 12,000 votes or something, that's more than enough to make up the margin of victory.
Amy: We're hearing so much talk about the suburbs and what's changing around the suburbs of Atlanta, and it seems as if that's where so much of this growth in the AAPI community has been. Is that what you had picked up to in your reporting?
Amy B Wang: Oh, yes, absolutely. Groups have been out there organizing and trying to get Asian voters engaged for years and years. Even before this election year, before the presidential race, you could see some of those changes happening, especially in Gwinnett County, in the local races. Gwinnett County includes a lot of the Atlanta suburbs, I think northeast of Atlanta, and it's about 12% AAPI population there. I think the county commission there started out in 2016 as an all-white, all-Republican board, and over the years, because of the work on the ground, that eventually flipped to an all-minority, all-Democrat board this year.
We also saw it in the 7th congressional district, which includes Gwinnett, and I believe that's also about 12% Asian. That was the only seat in the country that Democrats flipped this year, aside from two in North Carolina that were redistricted. Carolyn Bourdeaux won that seat by fewer than 9,000 votes, and a lot of the progressive organizers there say that, for sure, the surge of AAPI voters there definitely helped Dems to take that seat.
Amy: We interviewed her soon after the election and she also credited the AAPI community there. Talk to us about who's doing this organizing and the kinds of issues that they are talking about as they are in the AAPI community.
Amy B Wang: A lot of these have been grassroots groups. There are so many, almost too many to name right here, but they have been I think, for at least a decade on the ground, trying to give Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders a bigger voice, just like the New Georgia Project or Fair Fight Action, Stacey Abrams's effort to register new voters and the voters of color especially. You just had the long, almost unglamorous years-long work of door-knocking, tabling outside supermarkets, this sort of thing, really having conversations with people and trying to explain to them that it's important to be active politically and part of that is as simple as casting your vote.
The organizers I spoke to said this has been years and years and years in the making, of us just being out there trying to get people engaged, and this year, we had record turnout across the nation. It's a little bit difficult to pinpoint exactly why there was such a surge. Some of it has been President Trump's rhetoric against Muslims, against some in the Asian community. He's referred to the coronavirus as the Chinese flu, and that has been shown to increase incidence of hate and discrimination against AAPI populations, regardless of whether they're Chinese.
Some organizers said we could tell some people were excited or excited to visibly volunteer because of Kamala Harris's presence in the race as the first Black and Asian American woman, vice presidential candidate, and now vice president-elect. Those types of things are a little hard to gauge, but by and large, it's definitely been these groups on the ground registering voters, organizing them, talking to them for years and years. As one said, this was just the year that everything came together to be enough to flip what has traditionally been a really red state.
Amy: Right, and that's a really interesting point now, which is, we're looking to two special elections on January 5th and no longer is Donald Trump the president. We know that Kamala Harris will be the vice president. Do you think there is the same incentive for these voters to come out, show up, just a few days after the New Year?
Amy B Wang: Well, the organizers I talked to are certainly hoping so. [crosstalk]
Amy: How are they motivating them? What are they saying? What's the message to say, "Okay, I know you-- We got the outcome we wanted on November 3rd, but here's why you need to show up in January."
Amy B Wang: Well, a lot of it is the same message they would tell on AAPI voters, which is that without control the Senate, it almost maybe doesn't matter that Joe Biden is president. You need a democratic majority Senate to enact some of the policies and suggested changes that the new administration wants to make. That is really going to be the test for them. A lot of folks I talked to said that the challenge actually for them will not necessarily be that there's not a presidential race but for engaging these new voters, a lot of whom maybe didn't want to talk about highly-charged politics.
What got them in engaged was local races, school board races, Public Utility Commission races, things where they could say, "Look, this is going to be who decides whether it's safe enough for your kids to go back to school or your bills and that sort of thing." They said without those down ballot races, that's going to be a test for them to go out and get into the muddy waters have just really US senate politics, to turn out voters on January 5th.
Amy: Amy B Wang, thank you for coming on and talking with me about this. I really appreciate it.
Amy B Wang: Okay, thank you, Amy.
Amy: Amy B Wang is a national politics reporter for The Washington Post.
That's all for us today. Our senior producer is Amber Hall. Patricia Yacob is our associate producer. Polly Irungu is our digital editor. David Geble is our executive assistant. Jay Cowit is our director and sound designer. Vince Fairchild is our board op and engineer. Our executive producer is Lee Hill. If you want to send us a tweet, I'm @amyewalter, the show is not The Takeaway. Thanks so much for listening. It's Politics with Amy Walter on The Takeaway.
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